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World: Caucasian, Central Asian Carpet Making In Decline

By Charles Recknagel and Muhammad Tahir Carpet dealer Fahri shows Caucasian carpets at Domotex (RFE/RL) HANNOVER, Germany; January 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- One of the biggest producers of carpets in the world, Turkey, was very prominent at the Domotex trade fair in Hannover on January 13-16.

But amid the scores of stalls gathered under banners shouting "Turkey," one finally finds a dealer with a stock of carpets woven in Azerbaijan.

The carpets are easy to spot because Caucasian designs are historically among those most desired by carpet fanciers, both novices and collectors.

Separating Out The Imitations

But Caucasian motifs are also among the most copied today globally, by weavers from Turkey to Pakistan to India.

There are not any carpet production companies from Turkmenistan present at the fair, confirming the continuing isolation of Turkmen entrepreneurs from the world market.

A dealer who identifies himself only as Fahri says customers must trust their eyes to determine the real thing from the imitators.

"The majority of the customers, they know the quality and they know it is produced in Azerbaijan," he says. "They now we cannot catch this quality if we produce them in Turkey."

But still there is some confusion. After all, the company, Otantik, that is selling these Azeri carpets is itself Turkish, and a sign on the back of each carpet clearly says "Made in Turkey."

Made In Turkey

Fahri must explain further. The Istanbul-based company has had an operation in Baku for some eight years and engages some 20 weavers there. The customers are mainly Italian wholesalers. And the carpets are labeled "Made in Turkey" because it is a requirement of the Turkish government for carpets exported through Turkey by Turkish companies.

Fahri is a pleasant, but slightly world-weary man used to the ironies of the carpet market. He says that despite continuing high appreciation for Azeri designs, few new carpets are produced in Azerbaijan today -- though great numbers are made by imitators.

"I think it is an economic problem [in Azerbaijan]," Fahri says. "They don't earn enough money [as weavers]. They prefer to do other jobs, or to move to other countries, you know."

Hossein Ramezani shows a stool cover with an Uzbek design at the Domotex fair (RFE/RL)

As one measure of the Azeri weavers' situation, Fahri says they earn some 40 percent less per carpet than their counterparts in Turkey.

That reflects the general state of the carpet industry in Azerbaijan, which went from being one of the world's most famous before the Soviet era to one mostly overlooked today.

Soviet-Era Decline

Carpet experts say Soviet authorities, like the Russian imperial authorities who preceded them, valued carpet production as a foreign-currency earner.

But unlike Tsarist officials, Soviet officials cared little about purity of style. Workshops in Azerbaijan's famous Shirvan weaving area were encouraged to mass produce not only in the local style but also in styles once only produced in the country's equally famous Kazak area. As styles became more and more hybrid, the interest among foreign collectors plummeted.

Carpets and kilims from Azerbaijan's Caucasian neighbors suffered similarly during the Soviet era and have yet to recover.

At another stall, a few stray Caucasian carpets languish among the masses of Turkish designs. Once again, they are all marked "Made in Turkey."

Among them is an Armenian carpet embroidered on the front with the initials "A.N." in Cyrillic script and the date 1945. The importer shrugs off the contradiction of calling that Turkish-made, noting that, after all, this is not a perfect world.

And then he confides that most carpets from the Caucasus today are sold to Turkish dealers "black," that is, by smugglers.

He says the exchange is not for cash, but for lots of lower-cost Turkish machine-made carpets. Those are the woven goods most easily sold today in the Caucasus, including Daghestan and other parts of southern Russia.

In Azerbaijan, there are some domestic efforts to revive high-quality weaving, but for now they remain small-scale. A firm called Aygun has 35 weavers and 15 apprentices. It is located near Kuba -- a region from which more than 30 distinct carpet patterns originate -- and it produces around 140 carpets a year.

The Case Of Turkmenistan

At Domotex, no companies like Aygun are visible. But there are producers from still other parts of the former-Soviet world that can tell similar stories of once-famous carpet industries now reduced to shadows of themselves.

May 30 is Carpet Day in Turkmenistan, but the craft there is in decline (TASS)

Among the Afghan carpet producers' stalls are many ethnic Turkmen. They have lived in Afghanistan for generations but stay in contact with their ancestral homeland -- Turkmenistan.

Abdurahman Haidarzadeh of Ankhoi Carpets says there are not any carpet production companies from Turkmenistan present at the fair, confirming the continuing isolation of Turkmen entrepreneurs from the world market.

In Turkmenistan -- historically the most esteemed source of the "Red Rugs of Central Asia" -- almost all hand-woven and machine carpet making remains in the hands of the government. That is just as in Soviet times. The product is almost entirely low-cost carpeting that is exported to Russia and points farther east.

Suffering From Isolation

Haidarzadeh says that to succeed, producers of handmade carpets must be out in the world, explaining the value of their products and developing customer contacts.

"They have to maintain contacts," he says. "They have to come and find customers. It's not easy to find customers by staying still in one location. The person who wants to sell the Turkmen carpet has to go everywhere; he has to introduce himself. He needs to explain it, that it has a certain kind of wool, and a certain design and certain dimensions, and so on. And he also has to get orders. The market cannot be developed by staying put in one place. They have to maintain contacts. They need to come to Europe; they need to visit America."

All those are things private entrepreneurs in Turkmenistan cannot easily do. The right to export carpets or conduct any international financial transactions is tightly state-controlled and getting an exit visa requires permission from multiple authorities.

Dealers say the most common way for private individuals to export the rare carpets still made by Turkmen women in their homes is to take them one piece at a time to a destination like Istanbul.

There, the Turkmen carpet is traded for the goods most widely sought-after in Turkmenistan -- commonly, electronic products and fashionable cloth for dresses.

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